The Long Winter (Chapter 17)
Laura Ingalls Wilder
The cold and the dark had come again. The nails in the roof were white with frost, the windowpanes were gray. Scraping a peephole only showed the blank, whirling whiteness against the other side of the glass. The stout house quivered and shook; the wind roared and howled. Ma kept the rag rugs tightly against the bottom of the doors, and the cold came crawling in.
It was hard to be cheerful. Morning and afternoon, holding the clothesline, Pa went to the stable to feed the horses, the cow, and the heifer. He had to be sparing of the hay. He came in so cold that he could hardly get warm. Sitting before the oven, he took Grace on his knee and hugged Carrie close to him, and he told them the stories of bears and panthers that he used to tell Mary and Laura. Then in the evening he took his fiddle and played the merry tunes.
When it was bedtime, and the cold upstairs must be faced, Pa played them up to bed.
“Ready now, all together!” he said. “Right, left, right, left—March!”
Laura went first, carrying the wrapped hot flatiron, Mary came behind with her hand on Laura’s shoulder. Last marched Carrie with the other flatiron and the music went with them up the stairs.
“March! March! Eskdale and Liddesdale!
All the blue bonnets are over the border!
Many a banner spread flutters about your head,
Many a crest that is famous in story.
Mount, and make ready, then,
Sons of the mountain glen,
Fight! for your homes and the old Scottish glory!”
It helped some. Laura hoped that she seemed cheerful enough to encourage the others. But all the time she knew that this storm had blocked the train again. She knew that almost all the coal was gone from the pile in the lean-to. There was no more coal in town. The kerosene was low in the lamp though Ma lighted it only while they ate supper. There would be no meat until the train came. There was no butter and only a little fatmeat dripping was left to spread on bread. There were still potatoes, but no more than flour enough for one more bread baking.
When Laura had thought all this, she thought that surely a train must come before the last bread was gone. Then she began to think again about the coal, the kerosene, the little bit of dripping left, and the flour in the bottom of the flour sack. But surely, surely, the train must come.
All day and all night, the house trembled, the winds roared and screamed, the snow scoured against the walls and over the roof where the frosty nails came through. In the other houses there were people, there must be lights, but they were too far away to seem real.
In the back room behind the feed store, Almanzo was busy. He had taken saddles, harness, and clothes from the end wall and piled them on the bed. He had pushed the table against the cupboard and in the cleared space he had set a chair for a sawhorse.
He had set a frame of two-by-fours a foot from the end wall. Now he was sawing boards one by one and nailing them on the frame. The rasping of the saw and the hammering were hardly louder than the blizzard’s noise.
When he had built the inner wall up halfway, he took out his jack-knife and ripped open a sack of his seed wheat. He lifted up the hundred-and-twenty-five-pound sack and carefully let the wheat pour into the space between the new wall and the old one.
“I figure she’ll hold it all,” he said to Royal who sat whittling by the stove. “When I build all the way up so the bin won’t show.”
“It’s your funeral,” said Royal. “It’s your wheat.”
“You bet your life it’s my wheat!” Almanzo replied.
“And it’s going into my ground, come spring.”
“What makes you think I’d sell your wheat?” Royal demanded.
“You’re pretty near sold out of grain already,” Almanzo answered. “This blizzard’ll let up sometime, or. it’ll be the first one that didn’t, and soon as it does the whole town’ll come piling in here to buy wheat. Harthorn and Loftus have got just three sacks of flour left between ’em, and this storm’ll hold up the train till after Christmas at best.”
“All that don’t mean I’d sell your wheat,” Royal insisted.
“Maybe not, but I know you, Roy. You’re not a farmer, you’re a storekeeper. A fellow comes in here and looks around and says, ‘What’s the price of your wheat?’ You say, ‘I’m sold out of wheat.’ He says, ‘What’s that in those sacks?’ You tell him, ‘That’s not my wheat, it’s Manzo’s.’ So the fellow says, ‘What’ll you boys sell it for?’ And don’t try to tell me you’ll say, ‘We won’t sell it.’ No siree, Roy, you’re a storekeeper. You’ll say to him, ‘What’ll you give?’”
“Well, maybe I would,” Royal admitted. “What’s the harm in that?”
“The harm is that they’ll bid up prices sky-high before a train gets through. I’ll be out hauling hay or somewhere and you’ll figure that I wouldn’t refuse such a price, or you’ll think you know better than I do what’s for my best interests. You never would believe I mean what I say when I say it, Royal Wilder.”
“Well, well, keep your shirt on, Manzo,” said Royal. “I am considerable older than you be and maybe I do know best.”
“Maybe you do and maybe you don’t. Be that as it may be, I’m going to run my own business my own way. I’m nailing up my seed wheat so nobody’ll see it and nobody’ll bring up any question about it and it’ll be right here when seedtime comes.”
“All right, all right,” Royal said. He went on carefully whittling a linked chain out of a stick of pine and Almanzo, bracing his legs, lifted the sacks one by one to his shoulder and let the wheat pour into its hiding place. Now and then a heavier blow of the winds shook the walls and now and then the red-hot stove puffed out smoke. A louder roar of the storm made them both listen and Almanzo said, “Golly, this one’s a daisy!”
“Roy,” he said after a while, “whittle me a plug to fit this knothole, will you? I want to get this job done before chore time.”
Royal came to look at the knothole. He rounded it with his knife and chose a piece of wood that would make a plug to fit.
“If prices go up like you say, you’re a fool not to sell your wheat,” he remarked. “They’ll have the train running before spring. You can buy your seed back and make a profit like I’m figuring on doing.”
“You said that before,” Almanzo reminded him. “I’d rather be sure than sorry. You don’t know when the train’ll be running and you don’t know they’ll ship in seed wheat before April.”
“Seedtime’s pretty sure to come around,” Almanzo said. “And good seed makes a good crop.”
“You talk like Father,” Royal mentioned. He tried the plug against the knothole and set to whittling it again. “If the train don’t get through in a couple of weeks or so, I wonder how this town’ll hold out. There’s not much left in the grocery stores.”
“Folks manage to get along when they’ve got to,” said Almanzo. “Pretty near everybody brought out supplies last summer like we did. And we can make ours stretch till warm weather if we must.”